NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The question is blunt: are you getting ripped off if you consume common nutritional supplements such as echinacea, ginkgo, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort and valerian? New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says you are. After his office commissioned DNA testing of a range of supplements, he has issued cease and desist orders to GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens. That’s because the NY AG said the testing could not verify that store brand herbal supplement products such as ginseng and ginkgo contained the labeled substance or found the supplements contained ingredients not listed on the labels.
Hold on before you rush to empty your medicine check down the toilet. At least one group said the AG is full of hooey.
Also know that claims about impure formulas aside, there are steps you can take to raise the odds that you in fact are getting exactly the supplements you are paying for.
First, however, absorb the AG’s damning claims: “Just 21% of the test results from store brand herbal supplements verified DNA from the plants listed on the products’ labels — with 79% coming up empty for DNA related to the labeled content or verifying contamination with other plant material."
It gets worse.
“While overall 21% of the product tests confirmed DNA barcodes from the plant species listed on the labels, 35% of the product tests identified DNA barcodes from plant species not listed on the labels, representing contaminants and fillers," Schneiderman claimed. "A large number of the tests did not reveal any DNA from a botanical substance of any kind. Some of the contaminants identified include rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant, wild carrot, and others. In many cases, unlisted contaminants were the only plant material found in the product samples.”
The bad news is that if you bought ginseng to get an energy boost, it’s almost certainly not happening if you swallow a capsule filled with crushed rice. So that is $10, or more, down the drain for a month’s supply. If the New York AG has this right.
But are supplements in fact hoaxes? Or did the AG miss this mark? Trade association American Botanical Council, which represents the interests of the supplements makers, is adamant that the NY AG is off target. In a prepared statement it fired off this: “The AG’s study is not based on adequate science, and its actions are thus premature.”
The American Botanical Council continued: “DNA testing seldom is able to properly identify chemically complex herbal extracts as little or no DNA is extracted in many commercial extraction processes. Basing its actions on the basis of only one testing technology from only one laboratory, the NY AG results are preliminary and require further substantiation.” That’s not exactly saying the NY AG is wrong - but close to it.
Which leaves you with a huge question: what should you put in your mouth?
Although he may have exaggerated the accuracy of his DNA testing, very probably - said multiple sources - the NY AG is on the mark when it comes to heavily discounted, generic nutritional supplements. Multiple sources pointed out that the Food and Drug Administration - which is all over the quality of prescription drugs - is largely absent when it comes to nutritional supplements. And when the push is to cut prices, just maybe the quality of ingredients suffers.
Claire Pearson, chief pperating officer at weight loss company Metabolic Research Center, shared the cynicism: “I don’t think the average consumer understands there is no scrutiny.”
But that does not mean every supplement is a con.
“Yes, there are fraudulent companies out there and they do sell bogus pills," holistic nutritionist Christina Major said. "These are the cheap bottles and random generics. However, most companies take quality seriously and have random, quality testing to ensure their product is what they say it is. These supplements are not cheap. I only teach to search out quality seals, not the cheapest pills you can find.”
Blake Janover, owner of high-end supplements company Trusted Nutrients, pointedly said, “There is a lot of junk out there -- you get what you pay for. Choose your brands carefully.”
Bottomline: “It’s the Wild West out there,” said Janover, and the reality is that caveat emptor rules. That means it is on you, the consumer, to validate that a supplements manufacturer has standards and sticks to them.
Is that easy work? It is not. But, listen up, you are putting this stuff in your own mouth and, right now, this buck stops with you. Definitely there are good supplements out there, and definitely there appear to be many that are worthless. Do your homework. And then you just may get what you pay for.
—Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet